How to Respond to Alarming Changes

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

This week I read a couple of online articles about the plight of the contemporary writer. In “Farewell to the Golden Age,” legendary author Philip Yancey summarizes the changes in publishing, both from his personal perspective and that of the industry as a whole. He notes, “Every year my royalties go down,” and notes that the reason he can still pay the bills as a full-time writer is because of his extensive backlist.

Yancey laments, “I do worry, though, about new authors who don’t have a backlist to depend on.  As readers are trained to pay less (or nothing) for books, how can authors survive?”

He has a good point, as underscored in The Guardian (UK). The article, “Authors’ incomes collapse to abject levels” is a review of a survey in the UK that indicated 11.5% of “professional writers” — those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing — earn their income solely from writing. It discusses the decrease in advances, the drop in royalties for established authors, and the fact that a few writers make a lot of money while the majority don’t. It put the median annual income of bookshelvesprofessional authors in the UK at less than $19,000. Not enough to support a family.

These two articles are simply highlighting a new reality — publishing is in flux and no one is quite sure what the future looks like. Everyday we’re faced with difficult truths:

• Publishers are merging, resulting in fewer places to submit manuscripts.

• Many authors who have published numerous books are finding their advances going down, not up.

• With self-published books now plentiful, there are more books than ever for readers to choose from.

• It is difficult figuring out how to effectively market books.

• A book’s potential sales are highly unpredictable.

• Many authors’ books don’t live up to the publisher’s sales expectations, meaning the publisher might not want to renew their contract.

• Poor sales figures can make it difficult or impossible to get another traditional book deal.

• The publishing journey often doesn’t live up to an author’s expectations.

In the midst of these truths, writers may experience moments of disappointment and dejection. They might be anxious that a series of speed-bumps could signal the end of their writing career, sometimes before it has even started. Often they are questioning whether it’s time to give up. Some are sad, thinking their lifelong dream is dying. A few are wondering how they are going to pay the bills.

While I understand that everyone has to deal in their own way with disappointment, I also want to encourage everyone to avoid getting bogged down in despair. Because here are some other truths:

• Being a published author is still an amazing experience even if it’s not your primary source of income.

• Publishing setbacks are not “failures” but necessary and expected rites of passage in this business.

• Just because things didn’t go the way you envisioned doesn’t mean things can’t still go well — possibly after re-envisioning your goals.

• People are still reading, meaning we still need writers.

• There are more options than ever before for getting your work in front of readers. You might have to adjust your expectations regarding how much you’ll get paid for it.

• You can embrace your identity as a writer, and refuse to let external circumstances change that.

• The best way to deal with this new reality is to stand up and fight. Don’t let yourself settle in to the despair. You’re not a quitter — pull out that fighting spirit and decide to be a writer regardless of the obstacles.

• Write your books. Share them with people.

Don’t ignore reality. But also, don’t let yourself get trapped in despair. You can’t afford the time. Better get back to work!

Have you experienced moments of despair over the state of publishing? How did you handle it? How do you recommend we all move forward?

 

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49 Comments

  • Writing is discouraging. I’ve been writing or fun since 1st grade, dreaming of holding my book in my hands. I’ve been taking writing classes since high school and collage, I’ve been carefully writing with publication in mind since 2001…and I have earned $125 with a few tiny devotions and articles. But this is what I have always dreamed of doing, besides being a mom. Nothing else would rouse me at 4:30am before my three boys are up and ready to attack the world together. I want to write and I want to learn to do it well and up to industry standard. How could I let go of such a dream?

    • For what it’s worth, your last line…”how could I let go of such a dream?”…has given me more hope this morning than could a sheaf of moto posters.

      Thank you for saying that. You’ve made a difference, at least right here, right now.

  • I guess it was a Golden Age…unless you happened to live in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, in which case the Khmer Rouge would have killed you for being an author.

    They had nothing specific against authors. They killed people who wore glasses, because they could, presumably, read.

    And they killed people who owned toothbrushes.

    A Golden Age can be defined as such from a carefully pruned and protected perspective, but outside those walls, it’s a slaughter. Literally.

    Sure, a writer’s income may be lower. Sure, it’s hard to make a living on what a writer makes. Sure, Amazon is making our lives generally miserable (except when we want to buy cheap books).

    Instead of bemoaning these facts, write and sell as and when you can. Thank God for the Internet, and the computer which make the physical process of writing, editing, and research almost ridiculously easy.

    And get down on your knees and thank God that you and your family will probably live to see tomorrow, that there is the opportunity to put food on the table, that you’re not hoping to get to a refugee camp where you might live for an indeterminate time in quite determinate squalor.

    Yes, we need to face reality. But all of it, not just that part which we choose to make us feel better or worse according to whether, today, we want to feel like a success, or a martyr.

  • Rachel, I think your first “truth” is one to consider … writing is probably not going to be our main source of income. But we do it because we love it. I think the only disappointment comes from the time put into it … when we invest, it is nice to see reward. But often reward comes in other ways … like seeing God use our work … when someone says it ministered to them. “That” reward makes me hi-five God and give Him a hand … for me, ministering to someone’s heart or making someone smile is more rewarding than monetary. They are both nice, though! :)

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I’m going to venture a guess that this is more discouraging for those who have been through the “golden age” than those of us attempting to enter the industry now. My expectations are already fairly low. Not meaning pessimistic, but hopefully realistic. Which is why I love my day job :)

  • Appreciated your encouraging post today, Rachelle!

  • I agree with Jaime. For those of us entering the publishing realm now, our expectations are probably lower because we didn’t have what well established authors have experienced.

    I always appreciate the way you can see both sides of an issue. Your ability to convey both sides has given me a better understanding of reality, but also given me encouragement. Thank you for that.

    It seems like one of the best ways to move forward is to put out the best stories I can and understand that they are not going to provide an income that’s enough to live off of. I think keeping in mind there are other ways of earning an income writing (articles and the like) may help with making money, but probably won’t totally supplement all a normal person needs.

    Perhaps having an accurate understanding of the publishing process—and what it means for authors—is an important step to keeping a healthy perspective in this business.

  • The numbers would definitely be discouraging if I hoped to earn a living solely writing. But I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever had this expectation, since I’m just starting out. Like Jaime, I’ll keep working my day job and hoping/praying for a book deal someday — not so I can quit my first job, but so I can realize my dream of being a published author (and for other reasons too, of course). :)

    • Lindsay, I was so thrilled over my first published article! Payment … the publishing was payment enough … little did they know, I would have actually paid them! But that check was nice. :)

  • Rachelle, it’s quite possible that all the “difficult truths” you have listed came from my own thoughts, both public and private. Fortunately, I’ve slowly come to realize and accept the “other truths” you set forth. Now I need to print them out and read them from time to time. Thank you for the mid-week boost we all need, both published and pre-published writers alike.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    Rachelle, It is very obvious that the publishing business is changing, and it seems not in a good way for authors. Maybe it is time for authors to change – not adapt – to how we do business.

    Isn’t is our commodity they are selling?

    Unfortunately, it will take greater minds than mine to come up with a solution. :)

  • Josie says:

    I personally think we are entering the golden age now. The so called “golden age” was only golden to a select highly marketable 1 percent of authors. Now everyone has a chance to reach readers and it is the reader who gets to decide what is worthy. Not a bookstore, book distributor or gate keeper. Authors can now publish and write the stories they always wanted and now longer have to hear this is great but not marketable. There is so much variety out there that was squelched by the old system. And authors can still make good money under the new system, they just need to adjust and I think that is the problem, they are having trouble adjusting. I personally think the the best way to make money as an author is step out on your own. Keep your rights, and higher your own editors for a one time fee and keep 70 percent of all revenue generated. Realize one doesn’t need a legacy contract anymore, just talent.

    • Well said! With 5 books out I was able to quit my day-job. (I have more than that out now.) But the point is, authors now have so many more options. I see this as wonderful instead of alarming.

  • Heather says:

    I think if I was honest with myself then I would admit that I’d love to make a living just out of writing. But in the last 5 years, I’ve also realized that I need a balanced life, and for me that means working in my chosen profession AND writing as a second profession. I need the balance of work in my life. So I’ve known for a while that I would not be making writing my full occupation.

  • I have to say that no matter HOW you are published, persistence is key. Whether it’s querying/proposing/submitting or deciding to take the reins and self-publish, you have to believe in your writing enough to go for it with all your might.

    I will add that, having been in both traditional publishing and indie publishing circles, indie publishing is facing these changes head-on, because adapting is integral to being a successful indie author. The indie community is notably open, sharing tips on marketing (what works/doesn’t work for us), breaking the silence on income, even interacting directly with our readers at every opportunity. I know it’s not for everyone and it can be like a full-time job, but I will say hope is NOT lost among authors. If anything, it is at an all-time high, knowing we can control more of our product than ever, from choosing our audiobook narrators to exploring all kinds of marketing techniques that might not have been available to us otherwise.

    Again, I’m not trying to put down traditional publishing and I know it is the best route for some. It is the route I pursued for years. But I do hope new authors realize they have other options, as you said, if they are willing to invest the time and effort. Being an author is NOT easy, no matter which way you go about it, and I think we have to support each other now more than ever.

    No matter what changes occur, authors won’t cease to exist. Even when tortured or killed, as Andrew mentioned with Khmer Rouge or in the cultural revolution in China, authors will continue to create. Stories will continue to be told. I’m very thankful to be an author in 2014.

  • I’m not quitting my day job anytime soon, and that’s OK. It’s better than OK. I am blessed!

  • I think a lot depends on which authors you talk to. The survey in question appears to focus on traditionally published authors, and there, I think the picture is bleak. Declining advances, bad contracts, fewer opportunities as publishers continue to merge.

    But if you talk to indie authors, most of them are massively optimistic. Like Josie above, most indie authors think either that we are entering the golden age or we have got there already.

    The results Hugh Howey has posted on his AuthorEarnings.com web site over the last several months show that some serious money is flowing towards indie authors.

    There is and always has been a long-tail distribution of revenue to authors. There is a “high head” on that distribution that represents a huge amount of money going to a select few authors. There is a “long tail” that represents a tiny amount of money going to a huge number of authors.

    If you look at only the “high head” and the “long tail”, you might get discouraged.

    But there is also a “broad shoulder” on the distribution, a point which Hugh and I and others have noted over the last few months. There are a surprising number of “no-name” authors in this “broad shoulder” who are earning quite good money.

    These people used to be midlisters in trad publishing. Now, increasingly, they are indie authors who are connecting with their target audience, building a backlist of books that all earn money, and quitting their day jobs because the writing money is so good that they can’t afford to work any more.

    My own view is that we are already in the golden age now. It’s impossible to know how long it will last, but we are in the golden age for authors.

    I have been writing fiction for 26 years and went indie almost 3 years ago. I have never been so happy as a writer. I have never been so optimistic. I have never felt so much in control of my career. And there are thousands of writers like me.

    • Well said, Randy. Like Josie and Heather, I am one of those authors. I don’t regret the years I spent pursuing representation and a legacy contract. But going Indie this year has changed my life, allowed me to become a published author earning steady revenue. Having the same tools available to me a publisher does, thanks to Amazon (Createspace, ACX, KDP) equipped me and authors like me to embrace our dream and succeed or fail purely on our own efforts. That’s a golden age to me.

  • Unfortunately, the golden days of seven figure book deals are over, unless you have a huge platform (talk show host, presidential candidate, etc) and even then, nothing is guaranteed. If you want to write, and write well, your motivation for doing so has to be because you love doing it and not for monetary reasons. Is it still possible to hit the mother load? Yes, but only for those who don’t give up and keep improving their craft despite the odds.

    • Let’s be clear that the golden days of 7 figure advances were never here for most writers. A tiny tiny fraction of all authors have ever seen a 7 figure advance.

      So if that’s what we mean by the golden age, then it has always been a chimera and always will be.

      But the real question is whether an author can earn more by writing than they can from their day job. And the fact is that indie authors are quitting their day jobs every day because they can do better by writing.

      To me, that’s the golden age. I don’t expect I’ll ever hit 7 figures. That was never the plan. But 6 figures is entirely possible. I know a number of authors who have done it, who are doing it right now.

      And I also know that 7 figures does not require a huge platform, at least not in fiction. What it requires is heavy doses of talent, hard work, smart marketing, and good old-fashioned luck. A few examples: Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath, Bob Mayer, Colleen Hoover, Holly Ward.

      But these should not be our role models. Few of us will reach that level. Our role model should be the hard-working stay-at-home mom who puts out three books per year, does a bit of marketing, and brings in an extra $10k or $50k or $100k per year for the family. That is a level that many of us can reach.

      • Yay Randy! Great encouragement in your words.

      • I like Randy’s optimistic view here.

        I write for the love of writing. I trust God other things will follow according to His timing and I am so blessed to be able to do what I enjoy. I also attended a writer’s conference in LA a couple of years ago. We have to be willing to give away some of our books to help market. Of course it’s costly but it’s part of the marketing. So if someone shows an interest, I often give away my stories they belong to God anyway and if they bless someone, (just one) then they are worth every penny and ounce of time I put into them.:)

        Great post Randy.

  • To me, this is not the death of the author. It is, however, time for all in the industry to re-tool—from the author, through the agent and publisher, to the retailer. Instead of lamenting the change, we should be looking forward in how to embrace opportunities that result from the change. I think I heard that Ted Turner’s cable-network news originated from having inherited failing radio stations. He didn’t spend time crying over his misfortune. He innovated.
    Most come into this field (again, from the writer to the retailer) because we have a love for the written word. We should ask ourselves, how do we translate this love, and our particular gifting, in this new “economy?” There are lots of opportunities! In some ways, more than there were before. However, it will require we change our mindsets and re-evaluate the current system to see what works and what doesn’t. We can’t stick our head in the sand, because we will discover a whole different reality when we come up for air. We want to be ready for that reality. With all change comes progress and loss. Find ways to move with the good progress (or be the initiator of it) and compensate for the loss.
    There is much to be learned from the indie/ebook revolution. We need to ask, why is it having the impact it does and how can we learn/benefit from it?

  • Sheila King says:

    For a look at self-reported e-book sales, check out kboards.com. It helps to have some data when making decisions. Thanks, Rachelle!

  • Hi, Rachelle. I agree with many of your points and with Yancey’s. At least in traditional publishing that was my experience–diminishing advances and money made per year. After watching the changes for a couple of years, running numbers, and realizing my nice career had hit a slump and could not seem to pull out of it–I decided to go fully indie and chose not to sign other contracts when my publisher went out of the fiction business. It has been a wonderful decision. I am making far more money, still reaching my readers, and am in complete control of what I write and when.

    So I agree with Randy, too–that the new options that have come with this slump in traditional publishing are amazing. When Yancey is bemoaning those halcyon days, he’s thinking only of the old way of doing things.

    “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”

    • Thank you Brandilyn and Rachelle for these encouraging words. As a new author I see this as an opportunity to think outside the box and lean into the comfort, encouragement and guidance of the Holy Spirit. I can’t walk away from the passion given me. I can’t quit half-way after years of being mentored by those who’ve gone before me, championed by people like Rachelle, and shaped by the deep work of the Holy Spirit. I’ve been tempted to quit, but I’m not gonna!

    • Lisa Grace says:

      For those of us who never had a chance to fit through the Eye of the Needle gate, (trade publishing)it is the golden age of being a writer.
      Not having to go through the query, manuscript, committee, yes/no phases, we get to skip to: write, edit, format, choose cover, publish, then repeat phases.
      It’s exciting to get books to readers quickly. I’m busy building my back list of books and mailing list of readers.
      I’m all for trade publishing and have an agency shopping around the series that’s been optioned for a major motion picture.
      I’m excited by the opportunities I have that self publishing has given me.
      Don’t despair. Unlike the path to heaven, there are many roads to building a career as a successful novelist.

  • Jan Thompson says:

    I’m also one of the writers who stopped writing query letters and started going indie. I feel “freed” because I have more control over my publication dates, how many books I want to publish a year, what sort of books I want to write, and I get to veto my paid professional editors and cover designers. The 70% royalties don’t hurt either. All in all, I’m happy as an indie.

    But I would caution that indie publishing is not for everyone. As an indie I have to wear two hats — one as a writer and the other as a small press publisher. They are two different things altogether. So not all writers want to be publishers. For them it’s best to remain in traditional publishing and turn over the bookselling to someone else.

    Hugh Howey said that “the work is the work” and “the path is the path.” As writers we all have to write. It’s definitely a golden age for writers now that we get to choose viable paths to publication. Some of my author friends remain traditionally published, and some are indies. I love the equal opportunity writers have today more than ever before.

  • I do my best not to get discouraged, especially since there are so many ways to get published now. I also believe God is in control of things, so my getting anxious or discouraged won’t make one wit of difference.

  • I appreciated the advice “You can embrace your identity as a writer, and refuse to let external circumstances change that.” I read Yancey’s post the other day, and I’ve battled my own discouragement. Thanks for the hope and encouragement in this post. I believe the publishing industry is about 10 years behind the music industry. We will all figure it out, and when we do, I think we have even more options and creative solutions to delight readers and authors than ever before. In a sense, we all get to create the new future together! That’s exciting to me. I want to be part of the solution!

  • Thank you Rachelle Gardner for this article. I have self-published two novels and four short stories and I simply loved writing them. I did discover rather quickly that, due to outrageous costs imposed by the publisher, that there will be little or no return on investment there. I have nearly quit many times early on, but I am lucky enough to have a loving wife that supports this adventure, so I have been able to continue. I am currently shopping for a publisher for my third novel, but it will see print no matter what and I’m about to start a fourth. These days, an author must write for the love of writing, not the monetary rewards.

  • Linda Nelson says:

    I have found the best way to overcome disappointment of sales figures is to remember why I began writing in the first place. It wasn’t to make money. I still have a full-time job. It was to express myself and possible entertain others in the process.

  • My Uncle Freddie (who’s older than dirt) asks me (at least) five times a week. “Hey Donnie, how’s that novel coming along?” . . .and donnie (graciously) replies “Ahhh, It’s coming.

    Then he says, “You know donnie, you need to be more like Stephen King.”

    Then donnie replies (every single time) with a flamboyant voice, “Despair . . . no more Uncle Freddie, Stephen King ain’t got nutthin’ on me.”

    My favorite uncle laughs and goes home happy. I just made his day – simply by starting a sentence with the word – despair.

  • Doris Swift says:

    This line encouraged me:
    “Being a published author is still an amazing experience…” I can almost taste it.

    I’m sure the uncertainties in publishing present additional challenges to literary agents as well.

    We follow you because we trust your advice. Thank you for not sugar-coating reality,since doing so never helps anyone in the end.

    The stand up and fight line was welcomed; there’s still hope and nobody else has our voice.

    I’m reminded of the words of Queen Esther, “If I perish, I perish.” We all know she didn’t.

    So for me it shall be, “If I publish, I publish.” If I don’t I won’t perish. I’ll still love writing,and I can still hit that publish button on my blog.

    So I recommend we move forward, as that is the direction we need to go anyway,the same direction as time.

    Thanks Rachelle.

  • Huh?

    I’ve been a professional full-time writer since 1988. It’s never been easier than now to make a living at this, and there is certainly more money to be made.

    Sure, if you are trying to make money the same way they did 15 years ago—agent to publisher to printer to warehouse to distributor to sales rep to bookstore to reader—you’re drinking at a dried up watering hole. But that’s true in any industry, not just publishing.

    But consider the internet. The top 12 Internet companies have a total annual revenue of $106 Billion USD. Twelve companies. No one knows how much revenue the entire internet of billions of sites creates, but it is probably measured in the tens of trillions. Now, keep this in mind: 90% of everything on the Internet is written by professional writers.

    In a world where deadlines are measured in seconds and time to publication is measured in nanoseconds, where money flows like electrons, and the appetite for content by billions of readers a day is insatiable, it’s not that hard to find a paying gig worth a good amount of coin.

    In 2007, there was a similar study. Professional full-time novelists as a class of writer came out on the bottom of the list, averaging about $5,000 a year income, while professional full-time bloggers made an average of $116,000 a year.

    So when I hear novelists crying about diminishing royalties and lower sales, I really have to scratch my head, because people read far more more text now than ever, and the number of literate people and the overall global literacy rate are both climbing drastically. The amount of money spent on text content is escalating, the profit margin on written content now stands at about 92%, and more writers sell their content directly to readers than one might ever have imagined possible.

    So please, let’s get past this study of pessimistic writerly outlooks and get back to work. The internet needs another 40 million words in the next 60 seconds, and it won’t write itself.

    Keep the Faith,
    David Rozansky
    Author, Journalist, Publisher

  • Lanny says:

    Totally agree with your post, Rachelle. If writing is not for personal expression first, then a professional existence surely cannot follow.

  • Thank you, Rachelle! Nice way to end a week.

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